Joe Moore camps out at a bay gall.
The following passage is from The Wayfaring Stranger. The Irishman Joe Moore, is wandering among the piney woods after crossing the Calcasieu River near Hineston, Louisiana.
He had now entered the “No Man’s Land” of Louisiana which in 1849 was wild and unsettled. Joe sets up camp in a swampy area by a slough.
As another day of walking ended and the evening sun settled behind the pines and the shadows lengthened, Joe began searching for that night’s camping spot. He’d just crossed a small creek with clear fresh water. The pines were mixed with oaks as the terrain dropped down to the creek. This looked like a great place to get a much-needed bath, cook supper, and spend the night.
Exploring the nearby area for firewood he came upon an odd circle-shaped area of hardwoods. As he explored it, he realized it extended for several acres. Most of the tree-filled circle stood in water the color of black coffee. Judging from the look of it, it didn’t seem deep.
What made this swampy area even more memorable was how it extended out into the pine area. On every side except where the creek was, tall longleaf pines surrounded the swamp. The wet area was beautiful and featured tall majestic canopies of every shade of green imaginable. The wind filtered through them and leaves fluttered down around him. Regularly the acorns fell through the canopy, loudly striking limbs and leaves, on their way to the ground. He picked up a bright green acorn and bit into it. It didn’t taste bad— then he spit it out—it was bad!. It had a bitter aftertaste that took a long time to get out of his mouth.
He would later learn that this circular grove of hardwoods was what the settlers called a “bay gall.”
Joe knelt down in a wet area and drank his fill. The water, tinged a dark brown, had a slightly bitter taste similar to the acorns. He decided that his next drink would come from the nearby creek.
He unloaded and untied his small pack and then unrolled the canvas tarp that had been the only shelter over his head for the last week. He tied a rope from two smaller trees and draped the cloth over the rope, carefully tying down the four corners to small bushes. This created a tarp that would keep most of the rain out if the wind didn’t blow too hard. Experience had taught him about tying the corners to a bush. Last week he had used sticks driven in the ground to anchor the corners. A strong wind blew one corner loose and the result was everything getting wet and then the other three corners coming loose.
By tying the corners to bushes, the tarp could bend and give in the wind instead of ripping the sticks out of the ground. Standing back and admiring his work, he couldn’t help but remark, “Well, a fellow’s kind of got to be like that tarp. You’ve got to bend with the wind and give a little without turning loose.”
With that thought, he began gathering twigs, limbs, and leaves for a cooking fire. He also gathered enough larger sticks and dead wood to build a good companion fire after supper. He got his trusty new rope out and made a large circle on the ground surrounding where he planned to sleep. He wasn’t sure it would keep snakes away, but wasn’t taking any chances.
Just as dark approached, the sound of flapping came from the slough. He turned toward the water and saw a pair of ducks land giving off one of the strangest calls he’d ever heard. Within seconds these two ducks were joined by five more. With it being nearly dark and his body being shielded by a large cypress, the ducks were not initially aware of his presence.
They continued with the strangest squealing and clucking he’d ever heard. It was different from any waterfowl he had encountered on his island. There was an eeriness and lonesomeness in their call that terrified him, yet made him smile. Later, telling of this encounter he would call it “the woodsiest sound” he’d ever heard.
It was only later that he learned these birds were known as wood ducks or squealers. They were the native ducks of the creeks, streams, and wooded sloughs of Louisiana. During the day they feasted on acorns and beech mast in the creeks. Evening brought them daily to their roost spots where they stayed on the open water to rest and remain out of reach of predators.
This slough in the bay gall swamp was one of these roost spots. For the next ten minutes, ducks winged their way in, splashing loudly as they landed. They mostly came in pairs, but also in smaller groups of four or five. He wasn’t counting but he guessed that over three dozen had landed as he watched. The pairs were always a hen and drake. The wood duck hens were mottled brown and slightly smaller. It was easy to see how their natural camouflage would hide them in the bushes during nesting season.
The drakes were the most unusual, and without a doubt the most beautiful bird he’d ever seen. Their distinguishing feature was the bright green head topped by a hood. The rest of their body was a wonderful blend of green, blue, black, and white. There is no way he could have adequately described them.
Landing, the pairs could sense Joe’s presence and quickly swam away. The females made the unusual squealing call. Listening to the these calls, he sensed that there were two calls: one a type of warning call and the other an invitation to incoming flocks to join the party.
What a party it was! The males made a softer call. The hens seemed to be competing as to who could call the loudest and most. It was a wonder to be this near this spectacle.
Slowly, the parade of incoming wood ducks lessened and then ended. The bay gall area was now very dark and he could only see the outlines of the ducks and the wakes they left on the water as they swam about in groups.
The ducks called and carried on for the next hour before settling down. Throughout the night, Joseph would periodically be awakened by the loud squeal of the birds, but it didn’t bother him at all. He smiled, rolled over and enjoyed the best night of sleep he’d had in months.
Read the following blog entry for my favorite passage from The Wayfaring Stranger. It tells of Joe’s second trip to the bay gall a year later.